A failure to prepare
San Diego is miserly when spending on fire protection, particularly given its fire-prone location. The 2003 Cedar fire drove this reality home, yet little has really changed. On the eve of the 2007 fires, San Diego had the same number of firefighters as it did four years ago, in spite of population growth and a firefighter-per-capita rate half that of many other major cities. San Diego Fire Chief Jeff Bowman quit in 2006 over the city's failure to provide the additional resources he thought necessary to protect its residents. A most prophetic Voice of San Diego article by Will Carless, "Wildfire Preparedness Stills Shows Shortcomings," appeared in July.
Two main factors are behind San Diego politicians' failure to adequately protect their city before last week's disaster. The first was a proclivity to treat the Cedar fire as a freak event for which no amount of local firefighting resources would ever be able to cope. The same "perfect storm" line is being used with the 2007 fires, inadvertently illustrating the point that these large-scale fires are actually regular events in Southern California.
The second is that San Diego's pension fund scandal has effectively gutted its ability to increase spending in response to the increasing fire threat. The public bought into belt-tightening as the way to deal with the pension fund issue and believed that public safety was still being protected. Politicians have been afraid to level with the public and reluctant to impose large impact fees on developers, whose ever-growing expansion into fire country is the root source of many of the problems.
When politicians fail to act, ballot measures often follow. However, a measure that would have increased resources for firefighting by increasing the hotel tax was soundly defeated. It was seen a subterfuge to increase the budgets of particular non-fire related operations, despite the firefighting teaser. The League of Women Voters and other groups that support improving San Diego's firefighting capacity came out against the proposition due to the charade.
The vast majority of the time San Diego gets by fine and runs an efficient firefighting operation. San Diego is able to call upon Cal Fire and surrounding fire departments to help put out the occasional brush fires that threaten its periphery.
This time San Diego was woefully outgunned, with no workable plan to bring in firefighting resources from outside the county in time to stop a runaway fire. New Fire Chief Tracy Jarman was quoted in a Los Angeles Times article as saying: "We're stretched about as thin as we could possibly be." The orderly evacuation of more than half a million people is something San Diegans should be rightly proud of. It is, however, the best indication that efforts to stop the fire before it hit urban areas failed.
The impression deliberately fostered by politicians is that nothing could stop the houses from being engulfed in flames as the fire roared through. Some houses have indeed been destroyed in this manner. Many, though, are burned down, one by one, by smaller fires that creep up canyons and go down streets well after the main body of the conflagration has moved on. This is the sort of fire that San Diego firefighters know how to deal with. San Diego Fire Captain Lisa Blake summed it up best: "We have more houses burning than we have people and engine companies to fight them. A lot of people are going to lose their homes today."
Bowman had estimated it would take $100 million to build and equip the 20 new fire stations San Diego needs to protect itself, and $40 million annually to run them. In light of losses in excess of $1 billion from the 2007 fires, the likelihood of homeowners facing much higher insurance rates from the failure to stop them, and the prospect of future fires, San Diego politicians may have made a bad deal on the public's behalf.
Richard Carson is an environmental and natural resource economist at the University of California, San Diego, where he studies natural disasters, among other things.
Think outside the tax
I think you could have shortened your opening essay to two words "more money." Hardly a new idea, but certainly an ineffective one.